At King Street Gallery on Burton you have to always remind yourself that you are not on King Street, Newtown, but you are on Burton Street, Darlinghurst. Although the gallery started in Newtown on King Street, then opened up a second space on Burton Street, then closed the King Street gallery, they kept the name going. It’s a slight discombobulation that creates an odd feeling that can become extremely profound if you’re looking at the wrong art. It’s a bit like standing on a slope, with one foot a bit lower than the other. In the case of the gallery’s latest show, an exhibition descriptively called New Paintings by Alexander McKenzie, the feeling is so crazy you feel like you’re falling off a cliff.
McKenzie paints landscapes that are part reality, part fantasy, amalgams of Australian and European places that get squeezed together in the artist’s imagination. As a graduate of Julian Ashton’s charm school, McKenzie has bucket loads of technique and pushes the oil around the canvas like a champ. With startling effects of light and shade, water surfaces and mist, the cumulative effect is a combination Claude Lorrain and those piss-taking canvases that Matthys Gerber did of bad department store art (snowy landscapes with cabins and deer). McKenzie is a classicist with little time for nature’s imperfections – he imposes classical compositional methods into his landscapes, creating repetitive frames, enriching drab Aussie bush with the footprints of long lost buildings, temples perhaps, in the shape of a few well chosen ruins.
This is of course insane. Going so comprehensively against the grain of what’s happening in painting, McKenzie’s paintings could be taken for kitsch – some of the works suggest that the monarch of the glen is just around the corner of the frame – and is so anti-fashion to be the work of either someone who just doesn’t care or is simply mad.
King Street Gallery on Burton is a gallery that is known for its abstract painters and chooses the odd figurative painter for contrast. In artists like Wendy Sharpe and John Edwards – both figurative – you have a nice contrast to people like Elisabeth Cummings and Robert Hirschmann – both abstract painters. Then there is McKenzie, all on his own, on another planet, painting the Australian landscape into a facsimile of Capability Brown. He stands in contrast to no one in the gallery, and very probably to anyone who doesn’t sell their pictures in a gilt frame.